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Part Eighteen: How Do Old Testament Prophesies of a “New Heaven and Earth” fit in Revelation?
In my last blog article, we glimpsed what the physical environment of the redeemed and restored New Earth may look like. In particular, we saw that it will not only embrace Garden of Eden-like conditions, but it will surpass them. This article will look more closely at the continuity between our present earth and the eschatological New Earth.
Some interpreters hold that the new heaven and earth prophesied by Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets actually refers to events in post-exile Israel, that is, after the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland following release from captivity in Babylon (e.g. Isa. Chapters 35, 60-66; Ezek. Chapters 36-37). Although the Kingdom of God described in the Old Testament is best understood through the filter of New Testament eschatology, some prophecies could (at least in part) refer to Israel after their captivity. Nevertheless, there are many difficulties with this interpretation.
It’s highly unlikely that Old Testament prophecies concerning the future “new heaven and earth” (Isa. 65:17; 66:22) are limited to just the return of Israel from exile to its homeland. In particular, the historical circumstances surrounding their return from Babylonian Captivity—and the physical environment of their homeland itself—do not match many Old Testament descriptions of the restored New Earth. For example, according to Isaiah the future kingdom will see an end to violence, and the sun “will never set” and the moon “will wane no more” because God will be their “everlasting light“(60:18, 20). Peace and harmony will exist between the animal kingdom and humans (11:6-9), and the Israelites will “possess the land forever” (60: 20-21).
None of these features or events took place after the exiles returned to their homeland—nor have they happened since that day. Instead, the Jews faced economic and other hardships, hostile neighbors, and were eventually suppressed by Rome—a far cry from prophetic expectations of an everlasting kingdom ushered in by a Davidic messiah (e.g. Dan. 7:13-14). The best interpretation of the prophetic passages referring to Israel’s restoration are eschatological—descriptions of the future New Earth that will be inhabited by believers from all nations, races, and ethnicities—not just spiritually renewed Jews (Rev. 7:9). This becomes clear when Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel’s future restoration are seen through the New Testament’s vision of the new heaven and earth, ushered in with glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 21-22).
Heaven and Earth Will Be United
One of the most significant end-times prophesies in Revelation is the “new Jerusalem” that will descend onto the earth (Rev. 21: 2; cf. Isa. 65:18). There is disagreement on whether this Holy City is an actual city (21:2, 10) or represents the perfected eternal church. However, with so much detailed description in Revelation, it seems likely the new Jerusalem is a literal city (Rev. 21:10-17). Either way, the new Jerusalem descending onto the earth will be the merging of Heaven with redeemed and restored earth. Heaven will encompass the renewed earth, and God will dwell there with His people forever. The late theologian Anthony Hoekema put it well:
The “new Jerusalem” stands for the entire glorified church of God. This church . . . does not remain in a “heaven” far off in space, but it comes down to the renewed earth; there [the] redeemed will spend eternity in resurrection bodies. So heaven and earth, now separated, will then be merged: the new earth will also be heaven, since God will dwell there with his people. Glorified believers, in other words, will continue to be in heaven while they are inhabiting the new earth. (“Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off," Christianity Today; June 6, 2003)
In light of this, the Jewish prophetic vision of a new heaven and earth, and the New Testament fulfillment, are ultimately speaking of the same glorious eternal Kingdom of God, where all resurrected believers—include Jews who have accepted Jesus as their prophesied Messiah—will live forever in Heaven on (new) earth!
As I pointed out previously, my recent blog articles may seem to drift away from the goal of this series: “Will our pets and other animals greet us in heaven?” But hang in there; I have a reason for this parenthetical detour. It’s to demonstrate that there is continuity between our present earth and the eternal (“peaceable”) kingdom, which God’s people will share with sentient animals. If Heaven is united with a renewed earth in the eschaton, rather than being someplace “far off in space” (Rev. 21:1-4; cf. Rom. 8:19-23), it is easier to envision that soul-bearing animals now inhabiting our present earth will join God’s redeemed people in Heaven.
Now, this raises a controversy among Christians. Is there a literal Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20)? And if so, how does it fit with the Old Testament’s vision of restored Israel? Could the Millennial Kingdom actually be restored Israel? More important, can the Millennium be harmonize with the united Heaven and New Earth described in Revelation 21 and 22? And, finally, what does all this have to do with earthly animals inhabiting Heaven? These questions will be the subject of next two blog articles.
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